An Invitation to Critical Sociology

Fuyuki Kurasawa

What Is Critical Sociology Today?

Interrogating the Social collects the work of a group of scholars, the Canadian Network for Critical Sociology, who, over the course of the last five years, have collaborated to put forth a collective vision of what critical sociology is in the twenty-first century. This vision has taken shape via a research agenda organized around three themes: recasting the character of social relations and interactions in contemporary society, uncovering institutional and discursive configurations of socio-economic and political power at different scales, and understanding emerging cultural practices and their social implications.1 Accordingly, the book’s chapters put into practice a mode of sociological reasoning that moves beyond the divide between empirical and theoretical orientations, as well as between ‘scientific’ analysis and normative critique, by studying types of social relations, organizations and discourses, and cultural practices. Yet to refer to critical

F. Kurasawa (*)

Department of Sociology, York University, Toronto, ON, Canada © The Author(s) 2017

F. Kurasawa (ed.), Interrogating the Social,

DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-59948-9_1

sociology is not an uncomplicated matter today, for it evokes a confusingly vast array of intellectual traditions stemming back several decades (Gouldner 1980; Mills 1956; Williams 2006; Hall et al. 1991; Horkheimer 1982; Habermas 1987). Rather than reviewing these traditions in great detail, however, it is preferable to identify two recent interventions that help to situate and clarify the iteration of critical sociology proposed here.

The first of these interventions is Burawoy’s much-discussed appeal in favour of public sociology, notably his proposal for a ‘critical public sociology’ as a form of reflexive scholarly knowledge simultaneously addressed to academic and extra-academic audiences (Burawoy 2005a, b, c). Burawoy offers an insightful alternative to an excessively professionalized vision of sociology, which, because of its disciplinary self-referentiality, privileges careerism and credentialization above all else. While academic debates and professional concerns justifiably guide sociological research, a critical sociology equally values an emancipatory critique of the established social order designed to cultivate collective resistance to relations of power and apparatuses of reproduction of social injustices, as informed by debates and struggles within local, national, and global civil societies.2

If critical sociology is to be publicly minded in a substantive way, it should strive to accomplish two tasks. Firstly, it can act as a form of public intellectual work that employs conventional media outlets and social media platforms to intervene in current social and political debate, bringing research and specialized knowledge to bear on significant problems and questions.3 Secondly, critical sociology can defend the robustness and vitality of public spheres by opposing the logics of fiscal austerity, privatization, and deregulation, which undermine principles of equity and universal access through which public services have been advanced and the notion of the public good has been sustained in the face of commodification and possessive individualism. By examining certain topics and making findings widely available, critical sociology can support informal groups, social movements, and organizations devoted to projects promoting the aforementioned notions of participatory self-management, egalitarian universalism, and autonomy.

The second intervention through which to define our version of critical sociology consists of an ongoing debate within French sociological circles between the proponents of a structurally oriented Bourdieusian sociology and various post-Bourdieusian strands of an actor-focused interpretive sociological pragmatism (Boltanski and Thevenot 2006; Thevenot 2006; Boltanski 1990; Benatouil 1999; Latour 2005; Callon and Latour 1981).4 On the one hand, the Bourdieusian school has produced a potent analytical framework, enabling researchers to bring to light the functioning of systems of social reproduction of material and symbolic domination, which are anchored in a vastly asymmetrical distribution of resources across domains of the social world (via the notions of capital and field). Furthermore, by linking structural constraints to situational forms of practice, Bourdieu’s concept of habitus provides a compelling explanation of actors’ dispositional tendencies and preferences according to their relational and hierarchically differentiated positions within fields (Bourdieu 1977, 1984, 1990, 1997).

Nonetheless, the structuralism of Bourdieu’s model can be excessively deterministic in its analysis of social action and culture, to the extent that his writings view the mapping out of entrenched structures and distributions of capital as pre-determining the outcomes of situational practices and the meanings of cultural works. Consequently, habitus can be reduced to the status of a transmission belt of structural realities, which direct subjects’ actions in a manner that accords them limited agency and reflexivity. Indeed, for Bourdieu, actors regularly misrecognize the play of mechanisms of symbolic violence and social domination (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992, 167-168; Boltanski 2011). Relatedly, structuralist determinism undergirds the Bourdieusian tendency towards reification and ‘black boxing’ of structures, for the latter are frequently presumed to exist and to reproduce themselves over time rather than demonstrating their circumstantial and provisional formation in particular contexts through the work of temporarily stabilizing assemblages of social relations and the creation of normative compromises resulting from processes of critique and justification among social actors (Callon and Latour 1981; Boltanski and Thevenot 2006). In turn, Bourdieusian sociology has a tendency to equate society and culture in toto to systems of domination and reproduction of hierarchies without fully considering the multiplicity of ways in which social actors deploy their critical capacities to intervene in or resist the circulatory and distributional processes through which power is exercised (Boltanski 2011).

On the other hand, in an attempt to establish a rupture with and distinguish themselves from Bourdieu’s oeuvre, pragmatist strands of sociology favour a social hermeneutics that ‘follow[s] the actors themselves’ (Latour 2006, 22, 283) by analysing how these actors make sense of the social world, operate in specific institutional settings, and negotiate with others in morally pluralistic societies. Pragmatism treats subjects as reflexive agents, equipped with the necessary competences to give an account of themselves as well as to justify their actions and worldviews when encountering critiques (Boltanski and Thevenot 2006; Barthe and Lemieux 2002). Hence, sociological pragmatism approaches the social as a complex and contingent assemblage of relations and human and non-human connectors, forming networks that constantly must be put together from the ground up. The central sociological problem becomes that of social coordination, that is to say, the need to explain how connectors are momentarily organized into modes of action, networks, and institutions that, when aggregated, give shape to what is termed ‘social order’ (Thevenot 2006; Latour 2006).

Yet from our vantage point, pragmatist sociology’s response to Bourdieu overcorrects his tendency towards structuralist determinism by implicitly falling into the converse trap of agentic determinism, leading to a voluntarism that underplays the constraining and dispositionally forming effects of distributional inequalities and institutionalized modes of domination upon social actors. Thus, actor-network theory tends to downplay the impact of network-exogenous social structures on the formation and extension of relations among actants within networks, whereas Boltanski and Thevenot’s earlier formulations of their theory overstate actors’ capacities for reflexive and morally based public justification in the face of critique (Boltanski 2011; Honneth 2010). To put it differently, they underestimate the extent to which structural factors create a hierarchical distribution of competences among a population regarding public accounting for a situationally specific course of action through appeal to meta-situational moral orders of worth. What is required, then, is greater recognition of the fact that, because of the uneven distribution of cultural and symbolic capital across a social space, actors are not equally equipped to participate in tests of public justification around key societal issues; they possess differing modes of communication accorded more or less validity and weight by socio-political institutions and different levels of access to and understanding of institutionally consecrated justificatory norms and procedures.5 Hence, as outlined here, critical sociology is inspired by Boltanski’s recent move to reconcile Bourdieusian sociology with its pragmatist counterpart, as well as Lahire’s reformulations of Bourdieu’s conceptual apparatus, in order to combine a structuralist cartography of systemic material and symbolic mechanisms of domination with an interpretivist taxonomy of agents’ modes of engagement in the social world (Boltanski 2011; Lahire 2012).

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